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Civil Rights Movement: Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X

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Date added: 19-03-25


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Two of the most prominent men of the Civil Rights movement were Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. These two men, while both advocating for the right for African Americans to reach their true potential, could not have had more opposing opinions on how to do so. King took a more passive approach, while Malcolm X advocated for anything but. Despite their stark differences in ideology, both men were able to use their platforms to bring the issue of Civil Rights to the forefront of conversations across the nation. Their differences in upbringing, goals, and perceptions of success are still widely discussed today, and these men have been cemented in history as two of the most prominent Civil Rights advocates, with their effects and successes still being prevalent today.

Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X could not have had more different upbringings. King was born to a middle-class family and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. His grandfather and father were both pastors who practiced in a National Baptist Convention church, and King considered the church to be his second home. He grew up in an immersive African American community where everyone supported each other. He was fortunate to be able to attend three different higher education institutions: Morehouse College, the Crozer Seminary, and Boston University, where he eventually obtained his PhD. After finishing his education, he became a pastor at a church in Montgomery, eventually moving home to become a co-pastor with his father at their church in Atlanta. While in Montgomery, he became the president of the Montgomery Improvement Association during the bus boycotts, and he also founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Malcolm X had a different story. Born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, Malcolm had a less than ideal upbringing. At the age of four, his house was burned down, and only two years later his father was murdered in what was made to look like an automobile accident. Before his father's death, he served as a Baptist preacher. He was also an organizer for the Universal Negro Improvement Association, a black nationalist organization that stressed black pride and independence, separation from whites, and an internationalist Pan-African identity among blacks everywhere.

Soon after his father's death, his mother suffered from a psychotic break and ended up being institutionalized, meaning that Malcolm had to enter foster care. All of his foster homes were white, and he attended a mostly white school until eighth grade, which marked the end of his education. In his early adulthood, he moved to Boston to live with his sister, where he entered a life of crime. He became a predatory hustler, pimp, drug pusher, gambling ring leader, and anything else that could possibly make him money. This all came to a head when he was arrested for burglary and was imprisoned from 1946-1952. The differences in King and Malcolm's upbringings is prevalent in their ideology and suggestions for dealing with the Civil Rights movement. Malcolm's advocacy or support for violence can be traced back to the violence he was subjected to at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan and the fact that his father was murdered. If whites were willing to incite violence to get what they want, African Americans should be able to do the same. On the other hand, King's aversion to violence and other ideological facets can be traced back to his upbringing. Growing up in the church, King was taught to love and accept everyone, and he preached this to those that followed him through the Civil Rights movement.

King's ultimate goal was explicitly stated in his I Have a Dream speech. He hoped that one day people would no longer be judged by the color of their skin, but by their actions and character. He wanted to live to see a day where someone could walk down the street and not remember or think about the skin color of person they walked past. He dreamed of a time when skin color became of equal importance as eye or hair color and nothing more. Based on these goals, he tried to relate to his followers that the peaceful Civil Rights movement was morally right as opposed to other options. In his famous speech, King says, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and hamlet, from every state and city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children- black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants- will be able to join hands to sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, we are free at last,' (King, p. 107). While King's goal never really changed, Malcolm's goals changed as his religious affiliations shifted throughout his adulthood. While Malcolm was in prison, he found the Nation of Islam.

After he became a member of the Nation and was instituted as a spokesperson, Malcolm rose to prominence and spread the message of the Nation of Islam to his followers. The goals of the Nation spoke nothing of integration. Instead, they wanted African Americans to set up their own schools, support networks, and churches. They wanted continued and complete separation from whites, and would do whatever it took to make this happen. However, this goal was not persistent throughout Malcolm's career. In 1964, he traveled to Mecca to complete the hajj, which broadened his perspective on his faith and keyed him in to the international struggles of darker peoples. During this trip, he converted to Sunni Islam. From here, his goals shifted. He announced his intent to create a non-sectarian black nationalist movement that would heighten political consciousness and action among African Americans. This new program also served to support the southern Civil Rights movement, and Malcolm began to align himself with grassroots political activists and more militant groups such as the SNCC.

While King was focused on equality of all and chose to view all men, black and white, as good, Malcolm X's view of society was full of anger and a desire to get back at those that put him in this position of inequality. Throughout his career, King constantly criticized two groups, one of which being groups such as the Nation of Islam, which Malcolm happened to be a part of. He argued that this group resisted oppression with hatred and violence and that they were, immoral and incapable of removing the evil of white supremacy, (Howard-Pitney, 117). Malcolm X heavily criticized middle-class blacks, a class which included King. He regarded them as, self-hating, white-loving traitors, and believed that leaders that rose from this group were, puppets of their white masters and enemies of the black masses' fight for freedom, (Howard-Pitney, 19)One of the most prominent critiques that King had about Malcolm was his approval for violence. He did not feel that it was necessary to get the point across and did not see why Malcolm felt so strongly about its implementation and continued support of more militant groups such as the SNCC. King felt as though Malcolm was to harsh in his view that whites could never be trusted. If African Americans were to be fully integrated, how could they go along not trusting those that they wish to become equal to? On the other hand, Malcolm critiqued King's unwavering stance on non-violence. Malcolm did not believe that passive protests or marches were the answer because they did not create progress quick enough. He believed that answers and change needed to happen fast, and this would not be possible using King's methods and teachings.

Towards the end of both men's careers, the leaders' views began to rapidly align and converge to the point where their once wide gap closed almost completely. After Malcolm's commitment to true Islam, he began to favor African Americans pursuing traditional civil rights goals of desegregation, rather than separation, and voting rights. He also no longer automatically looked as white individuals as unchangeably and inherently evil. King also revised his views on things such as the nature of white racism, understanding now that it was far deeper and harder to remove than he initially thought. He also changed his views to mirror Malcolm's on the extent of the systematic changes that needed to be made to get rid of racism and make up for the damages it caused. Towards the end of Malcolm's life, it seemed as though King became more open to the idea of the two of them working together and that things were finally going to get better, but this was never able to happen. Two days before they were scheduled to meet again, Malcolm was killed in a, hail of bullets, (Howard-Pitney, 22).

While they were never able to bridge all of their disagreements, many scholars believe that they never would have been able to agree on everything because of their dramatically different stances on the use of violence. Due to this convergence of views, people began to claim that King was becoming more negative overall and Malcolm was shifting towards more positive views and teachings. King's speeches and callings were beginning to be seen as having a harsh tone and overall pessimistic. King supposedly spoke on the topic, attributing his growing sense of discouragement to an increase in urban riots, involvement in the Vietnam War, opposition to desegregation, and vast indifference to black poverty. Malcolm X on the other hand was seen as becoming more optimistic in his views. After leaving the Nation of Islam, he realized that it could be possible to have equality and integration, and the people noticed the change in his tone. This switch in ideology seems quite shocking when it is typically taught that King had one view and Malcolm had the other with no real change. However, in relation to the convergence of their views overall, it can be said that, Without doubt, King and Malcolm stood resolutely together in calling for black resistance to racial oppression, (Howard-Pitney, 19).

King and Malcolm obviously had their differences. Their upbringings, education, lifestyles as they first moved into adulthood, and their overall stances on the Civil Rights issues could not have been more different. However, despite these differences, they were still fighting for the same thing: African American liberation. As Malcolm X once stated, 'King and I have nothing to debate about. We are both indicting. I would say to him: You indict and give them hope. I'll indict and give them no hope,' (Malcolm X, 19). Even though these two men took different approaches to achieving their goals, they were working towards the same goal. With both men having as large of a platform as they did, the fact that they were both bringing a very serious and pertinent matter to the forefront of social and political conversations should not be overshadowed by their differences in ideology. More people were talking about this issue, whether they supported it or not, giving it the national attention it deserved. In the end, They both loved their people and were committed to realizing African Americans' real freedom, (Howard-Pitney, 19).

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